This is not a death group (for the first team)
We will take a look at the opponents and shed light on the current form as well as historical duels with these teams.
The 36-time Portuguese champion Benfica Lisbon was drawn from the second pot. The Portuguese had to settle for the vice-championship behind FC Porto last year. Previously, they had been eliminated in the Champions League with six defeats in a group with Manchester United, CSKA Moscow and FC Basel.
Rui Vitoria’s squad started the current season with seven points from the first three matches, drawing 1-1 against their city rivals Sporting. SL Benfica is competing in the Bavarian-like 4-1-4-1 system, although due to Jonas’ injury the former Frankfurt player Haris Seferovic is now and then the single striker. The team is very young overall, with Pizzi and Eduardo Silva as the backbone.
For the Champions League, the Scarlet Reds beat Fenerbahce Istanbul and PAOK Saloniki without defeat in the qualification rounds.
They have played FC Bayern eight times so far, but they have not yet won. They last met in the quarter-finals of the 2015/16 season. In this duel, a young Renato Sanches in the midfield of the Eagles left a lasting impression in the Munich scouting department, so that the Portuguese changed to the Isar the following summer. In the 1996 UEFA Cup round of 16, Benfica were beaten with a 7-2 aggregate result, of which Jürgen Klinsmann alone scored six goals.
Also the second opponent could not become champion in the domestic league in the pre-season. Arjen Robben’s home club, PSV Eindhoven, was one tick more consistent throughout the season and ended up with four points more. AFC Ajax also ended early in Europe. They lost to OGC Nice in the Champions League qualifiers and then lost both games to Rosenborg in qualifying for the Europa League.
The team has set itself higher goals for the current season, which has already been achieved in part by successfully qualifying against Graz, Liège and Kiev. In the league they are in third place behind Alkmaar and Eindhoven after three games with seven points and 7:1 goals. The most famous player is certainly Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who returned to the Netherlands at the end of his career. He is supported by a large group of young talents such as Kasper Dolberg, David Neres and Hakim Zieych.
Coach Erik ten Haag is an old acquaintance of FC Bayern, as the Dutchman was in charge of the second team between 2013 and 2015. Since December 2017, the 48-year-old has now been in control at Ajax after he had made his mark in Utrecht.
A great team of the 1970s, with three consecutive European Cup titles and legendary players such as Johann Cruyff and Johann Neskens, the big duels with FC Bayern are already somewhat in the past. For the last time, the two clubs faced each other in the group stage in 2004, with Roy Makaay adjusting the situation with three goals in the home game. Nine years earlier they had fallen apart when Ajax kicked Munich’s team out of the competition in the semi-finals on their way to the fourth European Cup title. After a 0-0 first leg, they humiliated Munich 5-2 at home, with Jiri Litmanen and Marc Overmas shining.
The weakest opponent came as expected from pot four. AEK Athens became Greek champions in the pre-season for the first time since 1994, beating PAOK Saloniki and Olympiakos Piraeus. After a failed qualification for the Champions League, they played in the Europa League, where they drew seven (!) out of eight games and only failed in the intermediate round due to Dynamo Kiev.
In the first game of the current season, they won 2-0 at home, with coach Ouzounidis relying on his proven 4-2-3-1. It will be exciting to see whether the games against FC Bayern will be more defence-oriented. On their way to the Champions League, they defeated Celtic Glasgow and Vidi FC. You have to look long for well-known names with the team from the Greek capital. Centre forward Marco Livaja is last season’s most successful goalscorer still on board.
They have never met FC Bayern in a competitive match. In nine games so far against German teams, they have only won twice, the last match in 2004 being lost 2-0 to Aachen. The Munich-based side are still undefeated in nine duels against Greek teams. They beat Olympiakos Piraeus 4-0 and 3-0 in the group stage in 2015, with Thomas Müller scoring a total of three goals.
Especially when you look into the other groups you can see how lucky FC Bayern was at the draw on Thursday evening. The group is more than feasible and anything but a clear group victory would be a bitter disappointment for Nico Kovac’s squad.
If the Munich-based team approach the games with the necessary seriousness and the right attitude, you should be qualified for the knockout phase from day four and can concentrate on the important matches in the Bundesliga before the winter break.
For FC Bayern’s Youth League team the draw comes very close to a death group. The youth set-ups by Benfica and Ajax are among the best in Europe and thus the qualification for the knock-out rounds will be a very tough challenge this season.